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My view: Broken immigration system loses jobs

By David Kirkham

For the Deseret News

Published: Wednesday, May 29 2013 12:00 a.m. MDT

Sen. Hatch sponsored an amendment to the so-called "Gang of 8" proposal. The amendment, which was adopted by the Senate Judiciary Committee, is designed to meet the critical needs of American employers by raising the numbers of high skilled (H1-B) visas available for foreign workers. It also funds state efforts to enhance science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education through increased fees desperate employers will gladly pay.

Jacquelyn Martin, AP

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This may be the first argument for legal immigration reform that incorporates the following: Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, Mitsubishi machine tools, Utah's state Legislature, Miss America, and my kids' high school.

How do these disparate elements fit together? Sen. Hatch sponsored an amendment to the so-called "Gang of 8" proposal. The amendment, which was adopted by the Senate Judiciary Committee, is designed to meet the critical needs of American employers by raising the numbers of high skilled (H1-B) visas available for foreign workers. It also funds state efforts to enhance science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education through increased fees desperate employers will gladly pay. Sen. Hatch's hope is to stimulate job creation by bringing in more job-creating, high-skilled workers from abroad, and to then help fund training for the next generation of American workers.

Having dealt with our broken immigration system (especially on H1-Bs) for my company, I strongly support Sen. Hatch's amendment. Comprehensive reform — to which there is no perfect solution — is necessary. The immigration crisis was created by both parties over decades — we Republicans have an obligation to do our best to help fix the system we helped break.

I recently joined a few hundred American manufacturers at a single-vendor trade show in Chicago, sponsored by Mitsubishi's machine tool division. Much talk from executives at the conference was about the deplorable state of America's education system in STEM and the acute shortage of skilled workers who could actually operate the million-dollar machines we were there to consider buying. H1-B reform was also top-of-mind with the attendees — all were in favor of lifting the outdated caps, set in 1990.

All agreed that students leaving community college today with an appropriate two-year technical degree will not have to look for a job — the jobs will look for them. As one acquaintance put it, "If they are breathing, they start at $20 per hour and go up." Every CEO agreed that each immigrant engineer they could hire would produce between three and five additional domestic jobs.

STEM was all the rage on Utah's Capitol Hill this past session. The Legislature made a $10 million appropriation to fund a STEM action center to encourage technical education that actually leads to and produces jobs — a wise move considering the state is expected to have as many as 110,000 jobs in STEM fields by 2018.

More recently I read in the Deseret News that Miss America visited Utah to publicize the importance of STEM education, encouraging more kids to pursue such courses in high school to prepare them for college and career.

Let's review: Just this month, Sen. Hatch introduced his amendment, I spoke with manufacturers who buy million-dollar machine tools but lack trained workers, $10 million from the Legislature exists to promote STEM and Miss America stopped by to lend her support.

Amid all this, my wife and I learned to our chagrin that our local high school has decided — because of district budgetary concerns — to discontinue its architectural engineering computer-aided design (CAD) classes for next year — key STEM classes my two sons and my daughter were planning to take to prepare for advanced STEM courses in college. (Sen. Hatch's amendment, with its added funding for STEM, could not be more timely.)

To illustrate the point, at my own company we became so frustrated with finding a qualified CAD programmer that I made the decision last week to instead hire a recent graduate in physics who we will have to train in house.

I applaud Sen. Hatch for working toward badly needed immigration reform and for trying to fund STEM education in the U.S. I applaud the Legislature, and I even applaud Miss America. But I am shocked that, as a state, our actions in our schools simply don't match our words. Sen. Hatch, I regret that not everyone appears to have caught your vision.

David Kirkham is the CEO of Kirkham Motorsports — a Provo high-tech manufacturer of custom replica sports cars — and a former candidate for governor.

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